Mail & Guardian

‘It’s absolutely terrifying to be a

A criminal investigat­ion into the petrol giant is under way based on Ian Erasmus’s evidence that the company allegedly polluted the Vaal with hazardous chemicals

- Sheree Bega

Aformer Sasol employee has endured “five years of hell” after blowing the whistle on how the petrochemi­cal giant allegedly, through gross negligence, pumped hazardous chemicals into the Vaal River system because of broken chemical sewer valves at its Secunda operations.

Ian Erasmus, who worked as a senior process controller from 2005 until he was allegedly forced to resign last year, says it is “unquantifi­able” what his disclosure­s over the unlawful disposal of the toxic chemicals vanadium, diethanola­mine and potassium carbonate at the firm’s Benfield unit, have cost him.

The father of two has lost his only source of income, is on antidepres­sants, and his marriage has suffered irreparabl­e harm from the stress of being unfairly discharged.

“To see your marriage dissolve right in front of you is horrible,” he says. “You fight, but it just slips through your fingers.”

In February last year, Erasmus was hospitalis­ed after suffering multiple mental breakdowns. He has regular breakdowns because the case is hanging over his life.

“The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and the department of environmen­tal affairs (now the department of environmen­t, forestry and fisheries) did nothing for two years since I testified and gave affidavits … It is absolutely terrifying to be a whistleblo­wer in Sasol, to have to fight for years against repeated retaliatio­n without any help whatsoever.”

‘Threats to keep quiet’

Erasmus tells how he has suffered victimisat­ion, severe prejudicia­l treatment, harassment and threats to keep quiet.

“I was told by managers that I should be fired. My grievances were ignored. I was subjected to multiple suspension­s, contrived dismissal attempts and was even assaulted by one manager at work and again in the Secunda Mall.”

This, he says, was for “speaking up when no one else had the courage to” about the unlawful waste disposal activities allegedly perpetrate­d by a handful of employees at the Benfield unit.

In February 2019, he testified about this at the SAHRC’S inquiry into the Vaal River’s pollution. Three months later, he was suspended.

But it was seven years earlier, in January 2012, when he first noticed that a valve at the unit could not close.

“A water hose was open on one of the pumps on Benfield phase one. But the phase 1 chemical sewer was completely empty. So I went to phase 1 Benfield chemical drain valve and tried to close it. But it was clear it was broken and did not close.”

He reported it to his foreman, put in an order to have the valve repaired — and forgot about it. But in 2015,

Erasmus noticed the same valve was still broken. He alerted his managers and put in another order for repair, but that, too, was rejected.

“I started putting in regular requests to have the valve repaired, but there was no action to repair these valves, so I reported it to the Sasol ethics department.”

‘Treated like a criminal’

When there was still no action for years, he “decided to do the right thing” according to Sasol’s codes and procedures on whistleblo­wing by disclosing the informatio­n to the then department of environmen­tal affairs.

Even though two senior Sasol environmen­tal managers were aware of the broken valves, nothing happened, he claims.

Erasmus made another protected disclosure to the SAHRC “because

this Benfield waste can and probably has ended up in the Vaal River unchecked for years”.

The manager who allegedly assaulted him was legally responsibl­e for fixing the waste disposal at the Benfield unit “and has the most to lose.” Instead, Erasmus claims Sasol reprimande­d him for making a case against this manager and in his fifth disciplina­ry enquiry, he was charged for harassing the manager.

He sent his suspension notice to the SAHRC and the department, but “they could not help me get Sasol to do the right thing”.

“I was labelled a potential terrorist and saboteur in that notice … before being removed from the Sasol Secunda site like a criminal,” he says.

Erasmus provided “undeniable evidence” to the SAHRC and the department that the broken valves were

replaced and “covered up” immediatel­y after his testimony.

“They flushed and replaced the entire cooling water system inventory in the two weeks after I testified at SAHRC. It was an almost black-brown colour, and magically it changed to a light brown, like river water, within two weeks.”

He says he handed over evidence to the department and the SAHRC that massive amounts of vanadium were present in the firm’s western API dams in 2017 and 2018 for extended periods with Sasol’s own analyses of the API dam water.

API dams are the facility’s catchment dams for stormwater as well as for hydrocarbo­n (oils) polluted water. The water in these dams is recycled for use in Sasol’s process water.

Vanadium exposure is suspected

of causing genetic defects, damage to organs through prolonged and repeated exposure and is toxic to aquatic life.

Yet, Erasmus says, the alleged perpetrato­rs are still “safe and sound” in their jobs.

“Not one of my colleagues wants to speak up because they saw how I was just taken out … I lost all my friends at my work. They are reluctant to even speak with me in a social setting.”

Expensive lawyers

Erasmus had to borrow money to hire a lawyer to try to get his job back, while Sasol, he says, “hired million-rand lawyers”.

He was offered a lump sum to resign in 2019, which he declined.

“Sasol management made it very clear that if I do not resign, then I will be fired, but whatever I do, they will get me out of the company one way or another.”

Since 2015, he has been in front of five disciplina­ry inquiries, each with charges “designed to dismiss” him, where he used a stack of documents “literally 1m high” to defend himself.

By the fifth disciplina­ry inquiry, Erasmus realised he could never win against a management team “who don’t even follow their own policies and codes regarding anti-retaliatio­n, ethics and their own whistleblo­wer policy”.

In July last year, he was forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement and resign or face dismissal on bogus charges, he says.

“I never thought I would lose my job for just doing my job. Speaking up in Sasol has destroyed my life.”

‘We are investigat­ing’

Last month, the SAHRC released its long-awaited report on the Vaal River system’s sewage contaminat­ion, which did not include industrial sources of pollution.

“We are planning to investigat­e the industrial pollution separately, based

on the testimony of the Sasol whistleblo­wer,” says Mateenah Hunterpars­onage, a senior legal consultant at the commission’s Gauteng office.

“We may decide to do it as an individual complaint and not as a full-on inquiry.”

Eric Mokonyama, the commission’s Mpumalanga provincial manager, says his office will lead the investigat­ion and will be sending Sasol an allegation letter imminently.

Albi Modise, the spokespers­on for the department of environmen­t, forestry and fisheries, says it is in the process of a criminal investigat­ion into the informatio­n that was provided by Erasmus to the SAHRC.

“The SAHRC has indicated to the department that it is also investigat­ing Mr Erasmus’ testimony into the industrial pollution of the Vaal River,” Modise says.

The case has been registered on the environmen­tal management inspectora­te registrati­on system.

Modise explains this is a requiremen­t in terms of the standard operating procedure between the South African Police Services and the environmen­tal authoritie­s.

After Erasmus’ testimony to the SAHRC, a verificati­on inspection was undertaken at the facility in April 2019.

“At about the same time, Mr Erasmus was approached for his affidavit in May 2019, which included a considerab­le amount of technical informatio­n.”

The findings were released to the department’s criminal investigat­or in October 2019.

Modise says a detailed analysis of Erasmus’ technical informatio­n, together with the site verificati­on findings, was then undertaken by the criminal investigat­or during the early part of 2020.

“A subsequent need for further investigat­ion was identified before the docket could be handed over to the director of public prosecutio­ns (DPP).”

It was determined that additional informatio­n was required to ensure that all the relevant details on this matter were placed before the DPP.

“This aspect of the investigat­ion was delayed due to the national lockdown that was imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19. The minister [Barbara Creecy] has conveyed to the department that delays in the matter are unacceptab­le and the matter must be prioritise­d for completion in the first quarter of the 2021-2022 financial year.”

No protection

Samson Mokoena of the Vaal Environmen­tal Justice Alliance says the SAHRC must investigat­e industries polluting the Vaal for decades without consequenc­e. “There is no protection for whistleblo­wers in South Africa, especially on the environmen­tal side,” Mokoena says.

He cites the case of Dr Pieter van Eeden, a toxicologi­st at thethen Iscor, now Arcelormit­tal, who blew the whistle on the company’s unsound environmen­tal practices in 2001 and leaked pollution reports. Van Eeden, who was suspended — and then reinstated — left Iscor after only 19 months.

“I think whistleblo­wers are punished for doing good in a system that says it needs them but does not act that way,” says Dr Victor Munnik, a research associate at the society, work and politics institute at Wits University, who wrote about Van Eeden in his 2012 PHD thesis.

Erasmus is on a Whatsapp group with ten other whistleblo­wers, led by former SAA group treasurer Cynthia Stimpel.

Other members include Eskom’s former head of legal and compliance Suzanne Daniels; Altu Sadie, an Ecobank whistleblo­wer and Devoshum Moodley-veera, who blew the whistle on misreprese­nted audit reports.

“They are all financial people speaking up on Gupta stuff et cetera. Me, from an environmen­tal side, I’m the odd one in the group.”

Erasmus says the Protected Disclosure­s Act is an empty promise with “absolutely no support” from the government. While the National Environmen­tal Management Act states no whistleblo­wer will be retaliated against, the environmen­t department “did absolutely nothing to help me”.

The Companies Act could not protect him as a whistleblo­wer, nor could the Commission for Conciliati­on, Mediation and Arbitratio­n.

“The fact is that these are only pieces of paper, and in the end, the only option you have is to apply to the Labour Court. No normal employee has that kind of money, and the companies know and count on it. Even if you do win your case, you are not guaranteed a reinstatem­ent.”

 ?? Photos Delwyn Verasamy ?? Toxic leak: If a chemical sewer valve was broken at Sasol’s Secunda plant, vanadium could have leaked into the Vaal River.
Photos Delwyn Verasamy Toxic leak: If a chemical sewer valve was broken at Sasol’s Secunda plant, vanadium could have leaked into the Vaal River.
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 ??  ?? Victimised: Ian Erasmus says he reported a faulty valve in 2012 and 2015, then to Sasol’s ethics department and finally to the Human Rights Commission
Victimised: Ian Erasmus says he reported a faulty valve in 2012 and 2015, then to Sasol’s ethics department and finally to the Human Rights Commission

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